Christian Philosophy? VII

This distinction between what counts as truth in philosophy (generally speaking) and in Christianity is significant. Plato, famously in the Theatetus, has his interlocutors worry the notion that knowledge is “justified true belief,” which of course they do so well that by the end of the dialogue they (and the reader) are left to start over, though now the path has been cleared a bit. For Christianity, however, knowledge is communion. Truth that is an object of intellection is not identical to the truth that is a Person.

If this is so, then it follows that the organs for knowing such respective truths are likely different. The intellect seems an appropriate enough organ for apprehending those truths that are objects of such intellective energies. But what of the apprehension of truth that is Personal? Here Christianity is clear: the organ for such knowing is the heart.

There is no need, I do not think, to belabor the point that the intellect is concerned about its own matters: the various intellective objects which may occupy its sphere of review and influence. For ancient philosophers, this was perhaps a bit more wide-ranging than modern philosophy takes to be the case. But, and this cannot be stressed enough, it is the case that even these diverse objects were still objects of the intellect.

Persons, however, are not subject to being objects of thought. Persons are not capable of being effectively conceptualized. Once that is done, one no longer contemplates a person but a concept. But that something may not be conceptualized does not lead to the conclusion that it may not be known. That is to say, we speak of knowing mathematical truths. We also speak of knowing persons. But the respective knowledge is different.

Leaving aside epistemological arguments regarding the possibility of genuine knowledge, if such is possible generally, that we do have true knowledge of persons is as true as we have knowledge of objects of thought. It is not here our purpose to compose an epistemology of love. Rather it is important to note not only the distinction between heart and intellect, and their respective venues for knowledge, but, to give some shape to the notion that knowledge of the heart is in fact knowledge.

We will give shape to this I think if we do so by some analogy to logic, however distant may be the relation. That is to say, in the Christian view, as persons are logoi of the Logos, it would not be improper to say that there is a sense of personal logic to persons. This “logic” however is not susceptible to intellective conformation, or, rather, it necessarily exceeds intellective conformation. As has been said, the heart has reasons which reason does not know. If there is an analogue within intellective energies to this personal knowing, it may be something like the Aristotelian nous, in which the intellect grasps principles in an intuitive look as wholes. Here, this knowing of persons grasps the knowledge of a person as a whole, whatever data there may be in terms of habits, preferences, historical background, etc; and grasps this whole as a mystery not subsumable to rational comprehension. Rather, in terms of knowing persons, we are on the surer ground of the organ of the heart.

This heart by which we know persons should not be schematized in a dialectic of opposition to the intellect. This is a particular modernist prejudice. It is knowledge in the same degree that intellective knowledge is knowledge, though it is qualitatively different, of course. Indeed, as I will remark in a moment, there is overlap between the two spheres of knowledge. It is not a syllogistic knowledge, of course, but it is not without its structure and form.

Indeed, when considered under something like an Aristotelian rubric, one can see that even with regard to intellective knowledge, what is generally considered knowledge under modernist paradigms is more closely aligned with what Aristotle calls episteme, an organized body of data, or scientific knowledge. What Aristotle calls techne also could be said to have its organization, but it is knowledge that is generally handed down via tradition from master to apprentice. Similarly, phronesis also could have its organization, but again, as it deals with the analyzing of choices in the flow of action, this, too, is communicated not so much by analytical texts (the Ethics notwithstanding), but in the way of life shared by friends within an ordered construct of a particular social context.

So, it is not unreasonable to consider that the knowledge of the heart is not without its own logic, organization, content, means of dissemination, and so forth. It is not, however, limited to or defined by analytical constraints.

Now, while philosophy itself quite intentionally limits truth to intellective objects, the Christian understanding of truth is much broader and more inclusive. In fact, if in Christian thought and experience truth is quintessentially a Person, then the intellect is much too narrow and much too limited a capacity for knowing such truth. Rather, for the intellect to experience its fulfillment, its greatest end, it must be moved within the heart that it, too, may experience this Person who is truth, and though such a Person will infinitely far exceed the capacity of the intellect’s knowledge, what the intellect is able to know will be strengthened and fulfilled by this greater and more extensive knowledge as the intellect finds its proper context for knowing.

The problem here, between philosophy and Christianity, which again tends to widen the two instead of bridging them, is that what is understood to catalyze knowledge in each sphere is presumably different. Philosophy understands itself as the accurate grasp of reality through the intellective energies of reason. Christianity understands itself as the accurate experience of reality through faith. But even the ancients understood that faith is not opposed to reason. In fact, reason itself understands the need for faith for it to work.

7 thoughts on “Christian Philosophy? VII

  1. Benedict Seraphim,

    Could you please say a few words about the distinction between nature and person here?

    You say that persons are the “logoi of the Logos” but I thought that this phrase from St. Maximus was used to talk about the nature (reminiscent of the ideas or forms) of each thing, even those things that we would not want to say are persons.

    Thus human nature has its own logoi that is fashioned after the Logos. But when we talk about personhood, we are talking about something more than natures. Here we would want to say that persons are not just created by, through, and for the Logos but that God has also breathed the spirit of life into us.

    Here I would also think of St. Theophan in relation to Aristotle. If the soul is the form of the body, then it is not the soul which sets us apart from all other living beings. Rather, it is the spirit which sets us apart. And it is the fact that the spirit has informed our soul that makes it a rational soul in the first place, which means a specifically human soul.

    Forgive me if I have been imprecise in anything I have said here. I greatly appreciate this series of posts as I try to orient myself philosophically.

  2. Nathaniel:

    I’m the one being imprecise, doing some word play. Yes, the phrase I had in mind was from St. Maximus, but no in the context I’m not using it in the way St. Maximus does. I’m not trying to construct an anthropology here, but simply to try to trace some very broad strokes regarding different kinds of knowledge and the organs for apprehending such. I would however in the main agree with the broad lines you are arguing in your comment.

    These are, as I said in the opening post, “thinking out loud” sorts of posts. I quite literally sit down, write them out. Correct some spellings and then post them. I don’t really try to edit them beyond that. It’s a bit lazy, but I’m really just trying to put down some notes for myself, and to engage in an extended reflection.

    Your comments, though, are helpful in that should I decide one day to go back and do something a bit more serious with them, then I can correct some errors and infelicities of language. So keep these comments coming.

  3. Further to your question regarding nature and person, insofar as it relates to this post, I think I might put it this way. The nature of persons are forever inaccessible to us. Not only can we not know God’s essence, we cannot know the essence of one another. (I take nature and essence to be generally synonymous in this discussion.) Persons can be known, but only through their energies. This is true of God, and it is true of us. So, persons will always ever recede from our full apprehension and remain mysteries to us, but they can nonetheless be known in the engagement with their energies.

    Now, whether I should have utilized St. Maximus’ terminology in this context I’ll not debate, and even my word play is a misuse of the terms in their defined schema. But I was trying to get at that persons can be known, that there is something like an inherent consistency in persons, relative to their energeitc expression of human nature, and that consistency is a basis for knowledge.

    I have read St. Theophan. I’m not sure what I think about this sort of tripartite schema to the human person, body, soul and spirit. I know that this triad occurs in Thessalonians, but I’m not sure how it holds up. This, however, is my own problem, not a problem with St. Theophan. I guess I’m also not clear on what the traditional understanding of the soul/spirit schema is.

  4. Benedict Seraphim,

    I am thinking out loud as well, so no apologies are necessary in that regard.

    When I read through St. Theophan’s The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, I was very taken by the tri-partite structure of human being, if for no other reason than that it gave me a basis for thinking that Aristotle’s notion of human nature is incomplete.

    I currently see Aristotle’s anthropology as the most robust theory of human nature that has been articulated by Western philosophy. However, I am hesitant to simply incorporate this anthropology into Christian thinking, if for no other reason than that this is what Aquinas attempted to do and it is itself the error of scholasticism.

    I would have to look back at my copy of the Spiritual Life in order to talk more about this, but I believe that in St. Theophan while the nous is the eye of the soul, it is also a specifically spiritual organ.

    I do not at all understand the relationship between the soul and the spirit, or between the nous and the mind for that matter (other than to identify it as the heart/mind). These are difficult topics. What is even more difficult is that for St. Theophan the spirit informs the human soul, making it a specifically human soul in the first place (at least from what I remember).

    Perhaps what we need in order to get clear about all of this is to discover some rational animals (in the sense of having a rational mind) who are not also spiritual animals. Then we could compare them to human beings in order to definatively determine what the difference is between the mere rational soul and the spiritual soul.

    The whole reason why I was taken by St. Theophan’s distinction between soul and spirit is that it opens up the anthropology that undergirds the epistemology that you have been working towards here. It gives us another basis for saying that reason alone is not the highest human faculty, and it is not the faculty that puts us into relationship with God and others. But since the soul (psyche) is the seat of reason (I defer to your judgment on this, since I believe that you are a better scholar of ancient philosophy than I am), we need to identify something else that makes such communion possible. Indeed it is the heart, nous, or spirit.

  5. I definitely think that there is a “place” of communion in the human person, of spiritual communion. And the Fathers identify that as the nous in the heart. But I guess my personal conception (which is not well-thought) of such is that the nous is an aspect of the soul, as opposed to something separate from the soul. That is to say, I see the soul and the body as distinctive (though obviously interconnected), whereas the nous I see as part of the soul, instead of yet a third thing.

    But again, this is my own personal take on the matter, and not one which I’ve thought very carefully over, nor compared to the consensus of the Fathers.

    As further clarification of my view: I am very greatly influenced by Aristotle, of course, but I do try to understand and to submit myself to the mind of the Church. That I come to such via a study of Aristotle is something I have to be cognizant of. Hopefully, however, I am in consensus with the mind of the Church and not with Aristotle. Aristotle is a powerful and influential thinker, and there is a lot of practical benefit from his philosophy. If I speak of things in Aristotelian terms, and from a beginning of Aristotelian schema, I hope that any defects are cured by my conscious desire to have the mind of Christ by taking on the mind of the Church.

  6. I will say just one more thing. What you have just said does clarify things for me.

    I also understand the nous in the heart to be the “place” of communion. Met. Hierotheos’ writings empasize this strongly.

    And I also understand the nous to be a part of the soul – the eye of the soul as some of the Fathers have said. What I am leaning towards here is that the nous is a part of the soul because the soul itself has been informed by the spirit. After God’s inbreathing we are no longer dealing with a mere soul, but with a spiritual soul, and I think this is an important difference.

    If you don’t mind answering another question, what do you think is the relationship between the heart and the soul?

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